Hey, At Least ‘Kaleidoscope’ Tried Something

Kaleidoscope is a pretty cool idea on paper. You’ve got a heist show fronted by Giancarlo Esposito. He’s doing one last job and he’s putting together a team. He’s got guys who can get things and guys who crack safes and guys who drive. There are FBI agents with grudges and mushrooms being grown in prisons and lots of people in wigs and sunglasses and trenchcoats and, again, really just everything you could ask for out of a heist show. On paper.

It’s also got a gimmick that seems kind of interesting, where you can watch every episode except the last one in any order you want, kind of like a game of Choose Your Own Adventure with television, with the theory being that your experience of the show can change depending on the order you consume it. One character’s motivations might play out differently if you watch things one way, another backstory might hold more weight if you have a different set of facts in place when you uncover it, and so on. The only rule in the first season is that you watch the final episode — the actual heist — last, because, in theory, you’ll have all the information you need by then, however you went about acquiring it.

This is also really cool on paper. We can and should screw around with the form of these things sometimes. We have a slew of new and different delivery systems for television shows now — weekly shows on television, binge releases online, weekly releases online, these hybrid “three at once then once a week things” that sneak in there, the thing where sometimes Steven Soderbergh or whoever will be like “I shot 10 12-minutes episodes on a flip phone and you need to solve a Rubik’s Cube to watch them” — and it’s fun to explore the boundaries of that space a little. Get weird. Have fun. Break stuff a little and see if you can put it back together. I support all of this.

The trick when you’re doing this, though, is that it has to… work. The thing you’re doing has to be worth the gimmick. I don’t think Kaleidoscope got there, at least not for me. I think it could have worked. I think if it had been presented in a linear fashion — or at least semi-linear with flashbacks and a little structured timeline-hopping — I could have ended up digging it, the way I’m inclined to dig almost any heist-adjacent television series or movie. I watched multiple seasons of Leverage on TNT about a decade ago. It was fine. It was fine! I promise my complaints here are not about me being a snob. Kaleidoscope could have just been a basic cable Giancarlo Esposito heist show and I would have been a happy man.

'Kaleidoscope' S1

The gimmick kind of took away from it all, though. Part of it was the thing where I tried to figure out the best order to watch it before I started and part of it was the thing where it was all just good enough to enjoy once through but not mind-melting enough to merit multiple rewatches in different orders to see how things changed as you presented the story differently. It felt like a show that is designed to be Googled more than enjoyed, which is maybe what some people are looking for in the meteorological goo of January, but not something that appealed to me in the moment. I came away from it thinking that it didn’t matter at all what order I watched the episodes in, and not in the fun puzzle-box way I think they intended.

But again — and I promise I do not intend this as a snide little pat on the head — good for them for trying something. Trying things is good! If we never tried anything then every show on television would be a workplace sitcom with a laugh track or a police procedural about a loose-cannon detective solving murders at the beach. (Which, to be clear, are also fine!) Trying stuff is how we got the whole Peak TV revolution, with The Sopranos and Community and a slew of other shows that were deeply weird and original and tilted the whole world of television about 40 degrees to the side. I still don’t think we’ve all fully processed that three of the best shows in history aired on AMC, a network that was previously best known for running Tombstone on weekday afternoons.

There’s something to be said for screwing with the form, too, as I alluded to upfront. The CYOA of Kaleidoscope didn’t work for me because it didn’t hook me enough to make me explore the alternatives, but something like The Afterparty did work for me. A lot. Did you watch The Afterparty? God, that was a fun show. A murder mystery comedy that structured each episode from a different character’s perspective and presented them all as entirely different genres of storytelling. There was a rom-com episode and an action movie episode and a psychological thriller and so on. Motivations changed, facts changed, and things revealed themselves in different manners… it pretty much did what Kaleidoscope set out to do, but it guided the viewer through things in a designed order. Also, there was one scene where two characters had an intense showdown at a urinal to see who could pee longest. This, to me, is television.


What are our takeaways from all of this? There are a few, as far as I can tell. The first one is that, if we’re going to have a zillion outlets for television shows that we can watch on screens of varying sizes, it’s nice to take a big swing on stuff here and there, just to see if something connects. It won’t all the time, or even most of the time, but I’d rather we do that than bury ourselves in cookie-cutter content from now until the sun swallows the Earth. The second one is that, if you’re going to structure your whole thing around a gimmicky premise, you really need to go ahead and make it all worth it because, like, while a show like Burn Notice is nice every now and then, the thing that’s nice about it is not having to do a bunch of research before, during, and after each episode. The juice has to be worth the squeeze or else what are any of us doing, you know?

And the third thing, which is probably the most important in all of this, is that we should probably make more shows where Giancarlo Esposito puts together a team to steal something. Or many things. For all my quibbles with Kaleidoscope and my hopes that it could have been more, that part was still pretty cool. Let Giancarlo steal things. Chronologically. Get Pierce Brosnan and maybe Ludacris in there, too. Again, there are no rules here. Give them lasers or something. Let’s keep throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.